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The Real Issues At Play in the Baptism Debate

The Real Issues At Play in the Baptism Debate April 7, 2021

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to many who subscribe to the content we post, but we are more broadly Reformed. We are firmly united on the Doctrines of Grace, among many other things facing the church today—but we do hold disagreements on matters of secondary importance. We recognize these differences, while vitally important, do not bar us from unity of the faith. In that, we can abide in good conscience with one another as we seek to do what we do, which is ultimately summarized in lifting up the common gospel we confess. We partner, as co-laborers, with great doctrinal unity, despite our disagreements.

In light of this, I wish to make a simple appeal to my Credobaptist brethren as it concerns how they interact with Paedobaptists. To be clear, the principles I am going to outline below apply equally to my brothers and sisters who hold to infant baptism. I speak as a Baptist, so my focus is on my own “tribe.” The reasons I make this appeal are fairly simple. I believe many are ignorant to where the true differences in our respective positions are found. Secondly, I believe many are therefore ignorant to the substance of what the opposing viewpoint actually teaches. Obviously this does not include any and all who disagree with the Paedobaptist position (I am Credobaptist, after all). Rather, my simple point here is that there are principles at play that many are unaware of.

One of the key differences is found within our hermeneutic, or more clearly, the framework we approach a given text by. We tend to do this rather naturally in one sense. We approach narrative literature as narrative, poetic as poetic, and so on and so forth, all quite naturally because most of us have a basic grasp of genre. Yet this undoubtedly comes into focus as we study the key passages concerning baptism in the Scriptures, namely, because of the hermeneutical framework we employ. The Redemptive-Historical hermeneutic has crucial emphases the Historical-Grammatical hermeneutic does not employ, and vice versa.

One employs a Christocentric understanding of Scripture, that all passages of Scripture are to be read as if they are speaking directly of Christ, and therefore certain applications of allegory, typology, sensus plenior, etc., are entirely appropriate hermeneutical principles to employ so as “to see Christ on every page.” Another employs a Christotelic understanding of Scripture, that all passages of Scripture are to be read in light of Christ and His work, and therefore, testify to that ultimate purpose, but the meaning as it was intended to be understood to the original, historic audience is retained. The difference is subtle, but it has massive implications on how we understand the nature and purpose of the covenants, many key Old Testament passages, and in this case, purported New Testament practices.

It likewise presents interpretive challenges when we come to how we understand the relationship between Israel and the church and issues surrounding continuity and discontinuity. The point I am making is that one’s understanding of proper hermeneutical principles will carry them along a particular trajectory. This is also why I believe much of the online commentary in the “Baptism debate” is profoundly unhelpful. We speak past one another regularly and don’t understanding the underpinnings that bear natural consequences to our theological positions, which is to say: we are often talking about the fruit of these things rather than the root.

Another key difference is found within the theological framework we operate by. This is perhaps where I will say all sides can easily have shortcomings, in that we often take our theological framework and impose it upon the text rather than letting certain passages simply say what they say. The point I am making is not that this automatically necessitates eisegesis, but that such a practice may result in this. What tends to happen is that we find a systematized understanding of Scripture and find that everything fits neatly into its component parts. However, there are moments of tension in Scripture where it doesn’t fit as neatly and tidily into our systems of thought. We regularly embrace this tension with things like the hypostatic union, Trinitarianism, and even something like the concept of eternity, which is not an everlasting continuation of time itself, but the absence thereof.

In other words, there are aspects of the Christian faith which betray human logic. This ultimately isn’t a problem of the text, but our own finite comprehension and ability to understand the infinite. In this, we must allow room for things that are too wonderful for our understanding. This doesn’t mean we cannot ultimately understand these concepts this side of heaven, but rather, that we admit our frailty and disposition. We accept that we are fallen creatures with fallen minds, and therefore, we can be wrong—even if we are certain we are correct. Our theological systems can and do have flaws.

This is why, as a Baptist, I can say I appreciate the neat and tidy framework of Covenantalism, but ultimately don’t find it compelling because I believe there are “problem passages” that throw a wrench in that system. The same, however, can be said of nearly every theological system of thought. The point is not the throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to simply say that these grids we understand and interpret Scripture through are part and parcel to the “how” and “why” we come to our respective stances. More to the point: these systems of thought that we embrace, especially if we are consistent, bring us down a particular trajectory. That trajectory may even be good and right, but internal consistency of an argument does not make for an exegetical argument.

However, this brings me to my next point, which is that many will embrace a position without having done the legwork necessary to speak to that position. Having theological and hermeneutical disagreement on the issue of Baptism is fine. I would argue it is not even necessarily wrong for you to hold to a position on baptism without studying the issue as deeply as someone else. It is to say, however, that if we are going to speak to the issue and challenge another’s understanding of the text, we ought to be able to articulate their own position without resorting to straw-men, red herrings, or blatant misrepresentation/dismissal of their arguments.

This is most commonly seen in comments like, “There is no Scriptural basis for infant baptism,” or the oft said, “Paedobaptism is a leftover vestige of Romanism.” These types of comments show an astounding ignorance of both the Paedobaptist position and church history. I want to make it clear: my critique is not against tone, but substance. These types of comments typically betray an ignorance to the actual position, rather than a handling of the key passages and interpretations of said passages. To make that more clear: I believe it is an intellectually lazy way of handling our disagreements, as it doesn’t offer a substantive exegesis of the pertinent passages.

Instead, it seeks to trivialize, downplay, or sometimes discredit the merit of the argument without actually even seeking to understand it to begin with. Rather, we can acknowledge that one’s argument can indeed have a Scriptural basis to it, but we find it to be uncompelling in light of the evidence in the Scriptures which point to the contrary—and then we ought to be able to rise to the occasion and provide a biblical argument to support such a claim. The point being: the only thing that truly matters at the end of it all is a correct exegesis of the text and if we are to make a claim to the contrary, we ought to be able to defend it.

Now, one can weigh the usefulness of providing a substantive exegesis of the pertinent passages, especially in light of how many lengthy books, blogs, lectures, etc., are available on the subject, but that doesn’t change the point that if we are to critique an issue, we ought to at least formulate a cogent, biblical argument as to why. Even as we seek to form such an argument, we ought to be able to treat the opposing viewpoint fairly, accurately, and with charity. That isn’t to say we relegate these matters to one of indifference, but rather, we apply the principle of the “Golden Rule.” We treat others as we wish to be treated, which includes a fair representation of their viewpoints. Secondly, we don’t make inflammatory comments on the motivations for why they hold to such a position, unless that motivation happens to be clearly revealed and flatly unbiblical. In all of it, we seek the edification of the body rather than a theological pissing contest.

The reason I say all of this is that I believe we can and should discuss these differences within the church. We of all people should be able to amicably disagree on non-essential matters of the faith—meaning we can and should look at our brothers and sisters who disagree with us on the issue of baptism, and still maintain healthy unity with them. If I may be so bold, I would even argue we can adopt a position of being quick to listen and slow to speak on some of these things, especially if we are not as learned on them as we purport to be on social media. You don’t even have to change your mind. However, you might just find a deeper appreciation for why you even believe what you do about the subject of baptism.

If you have studied these issues and land differently, I am not one to tell you that it is wrong to land firmly. My appeal to you is that if you find it of value to debate with one another, at least seek to do so with an awareness of all the key elements at play behind the debate. This changes the nature of the debate from one which says it is without any biblical merit to one that is a deeper-seated issue. Namely, we need to understand the way we read the genres of literature within the Scriptures and our theological presuppositions become incredibly practical and color much of how we understand these issues. As a quick aside, this alone sheds light on the importance of studying a subject like hermeneutics.

Secondly, I would challenge people to enter into this discussion with edification in mind. What happens far too often is that the battle-lines get reinforced and people become further entrenched without recognizing there are things we can agree to disagree on, nor that there are even “issues behind the issues.” It is unlikely you will change a convinced Presbyterian, Anglican, or Lutheran that they are fundamentally wrong in their understanding of the practice and mode of Baptism. That’s not to say you shouldn’t discuss these things; I hope that much is obvious by now. I am, however, offering up a challenge to you on this: ask how it will work to mutual edification. Ask how it will lead to further understanding and appreciation of their desire to be faithful to Scripture in this.

Believe it or not, this can happen, even in the heated debate concerning Baptism. The good thing is that few, if any, wish to “re-baptize” us by drowning us in the river as they did with the Anabaptists.

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